Robot 6

Comics reviewers need to talk more about art

This is not just art. This is a story.

Not just art, but a story

Though I can appreciate that a lot of reviewers don’t have the artistic vocabulary to really review art, they always have lots to say about the story. An analysis of the storytelling would be interesting.

– Marvel artist Declan Shalvey, on how comics reviewers can better discuss visual art in criticism.

It’s a commonly recognized phenomenon that reviewers tend to focus on the writing part of comics, because they are, after all, writers and that’s what they have the vocabulary for. Criticism of visual art requires a different set of terms that frankly, not a lot of comics critics know. Shalvey pokes holes in that excuse, however, by offering for critique an aspect of comics art that writers should already be equipped to discuss: the effectiveness of visual storytelling.

There are levels to that discussion, too, of course. Not every reviewer knows or understands the 180-degree rule or how it applies to comics (although they probably all should, if they’re serious about the craft of reviewing comics), but even the most amateur reviewer should be able to talk about whether the story made sense from a visual standpoint: how the art contributed to or detracted from the reader’s ability to understand and think about the story. That’s basic stuff, and I’m as guilty as anyone else of ignoring it in my reviews. Shalvey is right in encouraging critics to do better.

We talk all the time about how comics is a visual medium, but when it comes time to discuss the comics we’re reading, the trend is to thoroughly dissect the writing, while dismissing the actual, visual part with subjective remarks about whether we like the style. That’s a shame, because script and visual art are way more intertwined than that.

When Shalvey shared his advice on Twitter, it struck a chord with a variety of comics professionals, including writers/artists like Gabriel Hardman and Jeff Parker. “The writing and art are both telling the story equally,” observed Hardman. “It’s baffling to me when people don’t get that.” Parker describes the artist’s job as “the second half of storytelling,” which he goes on to clarify as meaning that so much of the storytelling is determined in that part of the process, after the script is done.

That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to know who did what. Shalvey adds that “it’s practically impossible to tell what contributions the artist makes, but credit often goes to the writer.” And Reilly Brown offers a reminder that artists often have behind-the-scenes input in plot development. The lesson then isn’t for reviewers to always credit the appropriate person for the right contribution, but to acknowledge that writer and artist are working together to create the comic and to comment on the storytelling as a whole, not just parts of it. That’s not easy, but it’s one of the things that separates good comics criticism from bad.

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Reviewers are not writers. They are journalists, after a fashion. I understand most comic book reviewers tend to be wannabe comic book writers, but that needs to change. Self identification is a huge problem in the comics journalism world.

We need to find folks who are serious about comics, but don’t want to make them. People who have a love of art and are (moderately) educated on the subject, but are not necessarily artists. Or rather not comic book artists. People who understand critical analysis and can break down a book into art vs writing; how one complements the other or detracts.

Most reviews seem to focus too much on Awesome! moments without seeing the choices made by the creative teams. The team as a whole, how they mesh, how they don’t, etc.

I do agree that when you have a bare minimum of knowledge concerning art and how to discuss it effectively, it can be challenging to render your appreciation on the matter in a way that convey the quality of the work in general.

I am pretty much an amateur reviewer, yet I always do try to give a paragraph to the artist and to the colorist as well, even though it is far less than what I give to the writing in general. It sometimes happens that there is something glaring or amiss in the art itself and that I take notes of such things, yet it never is that obvious to me as errors in writing or in the logic of storytelling.

I suppose I should make an effort in educating myself on the matter a tad more seriously, though it’s a hard road for one that has only learned about the composition of an image through cinema.

I do agree on the point Shalvey is making though. There are a lot of writings that only talk about appreciation in general without going into further analysis on the art and the story and how they mesh together. We can’t all be pro, but some of us do get better as time goes on.

I could write something very long but basically there is more to this than just what Shalvey states – namely that there are anywhere from 2-5 people involved in how an image appears on the page.

Most commonly there are 3: the artist, the inker, and the colorist. There are also two others who play a smaller role: the writer and the letterer. The editor is a questionable 6th and due to the nebulous and amebic nature of that role, I’m choosing to leave it out.

That is a lot of people to try to dissect attribution, esp when there is no easy way to delineate how much one contributes or detracts from the whole. Here’s some questions that are quite difficult – or down right impossible – to answer by the average reviewer:

Did the writer give specific instructions on how a panel was to be framed/placed/viewed?
Did the artist follow those directions, make his own choices, or get no direction at all and come up with it out of whole cloth?
Do panels imply motion or stagnant POV? Are they placed properly with good sizing? Are those choices good/bad?
How well does the inker complement/detract from the artist? From the tone?
Are the colors the right shade for the tone and POVs?
is the tone even appropriate? For the scene? For the story?
Are shadows used (effectively)?
is there depth? Is depth necessary or in sync with the overall style?
Does the style overall support or detract from the story?
Does the font attribute proper tone and cadence in the voices?
Are word balloon and caption placement appropriate or stilted? Does the art make allowance for the need for word balloons and captions.

And none of that even touches on what actually happens between the covers.

I can’t recall which issue it was but there was an excellent Wizard issue from around 2000 that had Jim Lee doing the art and how that art looked after being inked by several different inkers. It is a stark illustration of the effect that one task can have on how the art looks.

Its hard to discuss with any seriousness, the art in comics when you have people like J. Scott Campbell, and when a lot of comics make it very difficult to follow the direction of the panels or the story.

Writing gets more love because it is more mature. Comic book art has its masters like Samnee and Perez and others who do with comics what brilliant filmmakers do with movies, but all too often comic art is laughable. It might sell but it is not serious, neither in style or actual visual representation. Again this doesn’t apply to all artists but a large majority of them.

It also doesn’t help that very seldom does an art team cover a whole story arc, sometimes. But that’s just my opinion. There are great artist and there should be more criticism of the art in comics . . . but for myself, I think a lot of that criticism would be very critical of the lack of talent . . . pretty pictures in sequence don’t make a comic. They should tell a story clearly, which too often doesn’t happen.

Part of the challenge is finding unique ways to say the same thing over and over again. Because, after all, most comic art is just ink on Bristol board, with artists accommodating a company’s house style while still retaining a visual look distinctive enough to differentiate them from other artists in their company. Artists with a style all their own, like Scott Morse or Jim Mahfood, are reserved for anthologies marketed “with an indie flair” (my words), and such work IS usually reviewed on its visual appeal alone.

The fact of the matter is, when reviewing an issue like “Superman Unchained,” any critique of Jim Lee’s anatomy, or technical drawing, or page layout, or character blocking, or the width of Scott William’s brush stroke over Lee’s pencils, or any such thing — that review on the artistic merit alone would probably sound just like any review written years ago for “Hush.” Perhaps reviewers should just write periodic pieces about specific artists’ developing styles. After all, the mainstream art reviews I’ve read lately are usually critiquing an entire gallery collection or something. Why not do the same with a series of artists’ stories?

eh, it’s not like movie reviewers really spend all that much time talking in depth about the kinds of camera movement or the lighting styles used either.

I’m quite happy with the amount of time I spend writing about art in my reviews even though I sometimes find I’m biting my tongue. I think I do this because I know how much work goes into making the comic and making art work well with a script.
Another reason why I don’t criticize art as much as I should, and this is more from private correspondence and talks with artists: they are usually on such ego-trips after they’re done working on a comic book that all they want to hear is praise and compliments, not honest to god critique. Especially from someone who’s never drawn a complete piece of comic art in his life. All they expect is a pat on the back and blaming the writer for whatever doesn’t work in a given comic book.
I don’t agree with that, especially when I find elementary things that are wrong with what they’ve done. But how can I speak about a character’s anatomy when I haven’t attended 4 years of anatomy classes and drawn hundreds of figures? Because I have eyes, because I know what works and what doesn’t on a given page, and this girl’s anatomy does not.
But most importantly, art has become such a subjective concept today, maybe not so much in the big publishing companies, but everywhere else certainly. Every little thing I could find wrong with a page someone else (artist especially) would attribute to artist’s little quirks, he’s art style and approach to story telling. So unless it really is a “what the hell?!” moment, you can’t really say anything is necessarily “bad”, only unusual until somebody more competent confirms or denies it.

“Did the writer give specific instructions on how a panel was to be framed/placed/viewed?
Did the artist follow those directions, make his own choices, or get no direction at all and come up with it out of whole cloth?”

Questions like these apply just about everywhere in the artistic world. We don’t know how many story ideas were the writer’s, or how many were suggested or imposed by the editor or publisher. If you watch a movie, you might not be able to separate what elements came from the producer, writer, director, actor, or editor.

At a certain point, you have to talk about what’s in front of you, and not how it got there.

I’m a big fan of Johanna Draper Carlson’s manifesto-of-sorts “How To Review” (http://comicsworthreading.com/how-to-review/), particularly this portion:

“All comic reviews should contain art criticism; one doesn’t have to be an artist to describe what one sees and give opinions on it. Do items and characters look like what they’re supposed to be? Do the panels flow smoothly, supporting the story? Is the reader’s eye led in the right direction by the layout? Do the word balloons fit into the composition? Think about how the words and pictures work together to create the story. A reviewer who doesn’t cover both art and text is reviewing a plot, not a comic.”

That last sentence is HUGE to me, and as someone who has been editing comic book reviews for 8 years over at PLAYBACK:stl (www.playbackstl.com, shameless plug!), it’s something I make all my writers adhere to, and I’ve been known to send reviews back to people and say “You didn’t say anything about the art. You *have* to say something about the art or you aren’t reviewing the whole comic.” So all I can is, right on, Declan Shalvey. You are 100% correct.

Jesus S!: “Its hard to discuss with any seriousness, the art in comics when you have people like J. Scott Campbell”

J. Scott Campbell seems a weird guy to pick on, considering (1) he’s a better panel-to-panel storyteller than a lot of superhero artists, and (2) he hasn’t drawn the interiors of a comic in what, 7 years?

Comic reviewers, especially at CBR, need to leave their personal prejudices and biases out of the reviews and review the comics they read, not the comics they wanted to read or thought they were going to read. When a reviewer says something along the lines of, “I went into this issue expecting X, and it wound up being Y,” and then doesn’t review what it wound up being, choosing instead to lament that it wasn’t X, it leads to a bad review. That’s like ordering a steak, getting chicken instead, and then when being asked if the chicken was good, complaining about how it didn’t taste like steak. We get it. You wanted steak. But you didn’t get it. Move on, and talk about what you DID get. We have some reviewers who will give 5 star reviews to certain writers and ignore countless flaws in the issue such as inaccurate power uses or characterization or completely glossing over anything for new readers (cough cough Brian Wood’s X-Men cough) while slamming other writers for doing exactly the same thing. We have reviewers who clearly aren’t reading the series regularly because they deduct stars by saying things like, “And then, out of nowhere, blah blah,” when if they’d been reading the series, they’d know the happening WASN’T out of nowhere, but rather part of an ongoing plotline. Those things, to me, are more important to focus on than this.

“and then doesn’t review what it wound up being, choosing instead to lament that it wasn’t X”

So it’s interesting that a post about how many critics don’t spend much time talking about art leads to comments about how we should talk about writing more (or differently).

Screw the 180 rule. Comics are comics, not movies. Do what you want. We need more Dave Mazzucchelli-Asterios Polyp approach to comics and less storyboard hacks. I’ll take a hundred Keith Giffens and Jerome Openas and Frank Quitelys and Mike Allreds over Greg Land, Steve Epting, Luke Ross and Ron Garney.

The 180 rule doesn’t really have anything to do with movies versus comics. The point is that if you flip perspective around 180 degrees people appear to change places, which is confusing whether you’re working in moving pictures or sequential pictures. Sometimes, it’s okay to potentially confuse your audience, but that’s true in film too: it’s extremely easy to find examples of respected directors intentionally breaking the rule for stylistic reasons. (Stanley Kubrick did it in The Shining, for instance.) But if you’re drawing a comic where characters appear to switch places between panels for no good reason, you’re doing it wrong.

Emir has a point about reviewing art critically, and the animosity it can cause amongst artists. I will say though I think that those defensive feelings aren’t about artists being egomaniacs or just wanting a pat on the back, but because most artists are really self-conscious and uber perfectionists. And while nobody likes to see bad things written about their work in any field, from McDonald’s cashier to comic journalists, I know it strikes a bit of a different chord for creatives, and thus the backlash we’ve all seen many times on message boards/twitter etc.

That said, not all critiques of art need to be just about the stuff we don’t like. Comic reviewers need to remember it’s ok to actually like stuff, and talk about why. Appreciating the storytelling of the visual side in a vocal manner differently than most reviews just tell us SPIDERMAN PUNCHED THIS DUDE, THEN HE WENT TO LUNCH WITH SOME LADY, THEN ANOTHER DUDE SHOWED UP AND HE PUNCHED HIM, AND OH YEAH THE ART WAS GOOD. That’s more of what I took away from Shalvey’s point at least.

Wizard #48, in 1995. The pencil artist was Greg Capullo and several inkers inked the piece which illustrated how much inkers contribute to a work. Today, I saw a Batman comic penciled by Capullo and I cannot recognize it as his style. Must have changed inkers.

Captain Haddock

July 11, 2013 at 9:44 am

Jesus S, that’s a pretty harsh condemnation of a lot of very talented artists out there. First off, J Scott as someone mentioned hasn’t done interiors in a while, but if one goes back and reads his Danger Girl, it actually works very well sequentially beyond pure cheese cake (of which there’s plenty). The art flows naturally and the line work and story telling is clear and linear.

Secondly, the bigger point is that it is harder for an artist to work on multiple books, whereas writers can do as many as they can. This has increased the pool of artists so it may seem like there are more bad artists, but there are plenty of good artists whose work shouldn’t be condemned so readily. If a writer can’t finish a book in time, the editor can fill in for a few pages or word balloons or get someone to hammer out a (likely mediocre) script overnight. If an artist is behind, not just anyone can pick up a pencil and draw out a fight scene between Batman and Mr. Freeze.

Finally your point on arcs, I would argue that multiple artists can still work on a book as long as it has an established look and still be excellent. Hawkeye is a great example, David Aja is just a phenomenal artist and story teller (read issue 3 to see a good CAR CHASE in a comic, or 11 starring Pizza Dog!), and he’s been backed up by Javier Pulido, Steve Lieber, and Francesco Francavilla, yet thanks to the total team contribution from inks, colors, letters, etc., it’s been a wonderful, consistent ride and everyone involved deserves MASSIVE kudos. They took a style the team established in their first issue together and ran with it. You can make a similar case for Jeff Parker’s Thunderbolts, which bounced art off Shalvey and Kev Walker for a while, or the Avengers rotation, or Chang and Atkins on Wonder Woman. The unifying thread is that the pencillers know how to tell a story, they work with the established template while retaining their own unique styles, and the team working with them keeps the look consistent as well.

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